It's fitting that Michael Caine is opening at the Charles in "Harry Brown" today, just when the AFI-Silver in Silver Spring is launching a mammoth retrospective for this astonishingly gifted and versatile actor.
Caine has gone from his signature role as a Cockney womanizer in "Alfie" (an opening-day attraction at the AFI series) to playing Alfred the Butler for the screen's reigning vigilante, the Dark Knight.
In "Harry Brown," he could be called a Cockney vigilante.
But that label would be reductive because Caine is extraordinary at infusing this character with everything he's learned about life and death and art. He turns a graphic urban-terror film into the story of a man who refuses (in the poet Dylan Thomas' words) "to go gentle into that good night."
If you've followed Caine over the years, watching him in "Harry Brown" will resonate with half a dozen pictures in the AFI-Silver series, from Mike Hodges' crime film "Get Carter" (1971), in which he played a really original gangster avenging the murder of his brother, to Fred Schepisi's "Last Orders" (2001), in which he played the vibrant center of a group of South London friends.
As the title character in "Harry Brown," Caine plays a pensioner in a South London housing project, located in the neighborhood where Caine himself grew up 70 years ago. These days in this area, drug-addled, gun-packing youths terrorize helpless men and women of all ages — the more helpless and old or frail, the better — and vandalize their apartments and their cars.
Brown is a former military man. So is Caine, who was nearly killed in the Korean War. For 25 years, Caine's more familiar characters have been urbane civilians, like the husband with an eye for his wife's sister in the 1986 hit "Hannah and Her Sisters," at the AFI in mid-June. So it's astonishing to realize how many times Caine has played a serviceman, and to see how much of that authority he brings to "Harry Brown."
His first big-screen role, in 1964, was as a dandified redcoat lieutenant in the exhilarating epic "Zulu." He first used his off-screen accent — and revolutionized English movie acting — as the wily MI6 agent Harry Palmer in "The Ipcress File" (both that film and "Zulu" round out this weekend's AFI fare). And of course he played a Rudyard Kipling adventurer in one of the most stirring of all buddy films, "The Man Who Would be King" (the AFI's Memorial Day Weekend attraction).
At the start of "Harry Brown," Caine's wary ex-marine maintains a separate peace from the carnage all around him. He cares for his ailing wife, plays chess at the local pub with one old friend and keeps a tidy apartment. But when his last good buddy begs for protection from the police and, sadly, never finds it, Brown goes on the offensive. He had been stationed in Northern Ireland. When Brown got married, he strove to put his battle skills "into a box." Now he unpacks them.
Without an ounce of glibness or undue glee, Caine traces Brown's trajectory from a mind-my-own-business kind of guy to a covert crusader. He puts meaning into the cliche of "turning a blind eye" to injustice. When his friend cautions him that corruption has invaded their cozy pub, Brown doesn't take in the warning; his wife's plight has drained his concern. Has any other actor been so skilled at getting an audience to see things the way his character does? Caine shows Brown trying to will himself into a lost world, where the police could handle antisocial craziness and a publican was your pal.
You're reminded of how often this actor has limned indelible portraits of disappointment and dissolution (as in "Educating Rita," June 13, 15 and 17). As the filmmakers create a growing air of dread, Caine depicts the quiet agony of Brown's loss of emotional support and any shred of illusion. But just when Brown appears to be hopeless, Caine pulls him back together. His first act of murder is breathtaking in its rapidity, a resurgence of reflexes that takes Brown himself and his attacker by surprise.
In a long sequence set in a debauched gun-dealer's sales headquarters and drug pad, the film turns into a horror movie. But it's a good horror movie, with, thanks to Caine, a near-great antihero. He makes Brown's residual humanity apparent to us, if not to his enemies. He's able to suggest an appalled consciousness even as he treats a debased young thug to a display of gentlemanly deference.
When critics reach for comparisons to convey Caine's accomplishment, they sometimes invoke life-embracing directors like Jean Renoir instead of other actors. Here Caine makes Harry Brown's bloody anger at criminals and thugs part of an older man's valiant "rage against the dying of the light."